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Processing Chickens

By Melanie Canales, Phase I Fellow

In truth, I don’t particularly like chickens; we have a fraught history that includes honeycomb, a bull, and a chicken coop. Also, anything with feet so reminiscent of raptor claws is going to be a no from me. But what can I say about processing chickens? That some bizarrely human part of me heard the phrase “gut bucket” and thought, good band name? That when my fist closed around the tiny knot of a chicken's heart, a sheepish “Kalima!” warbled out of my throat? I am humbled by all the chicken nuggets I have eaten in my life (an absurd number, to be sure). Of all the chicken nuggets, of all the barbecues and sick day caldos, how many of those chickens were cooed thank yous as they rattled their last in someone’s hands? How many of those hands found themselves in clean, safe conditions for such an essential and wrenching task? I can say that I’ve witnessed no gnarlier beauty than that of a gizzard - an opalescent muscle that catches light in your palm, shimmering with mineral and reds.

Jason Myers-Brenner, our knowledgeable and compassionate chicken odyssey captain, walked us through the entire process and reminded us of the big picture, contextualizing the decision to dispatch chickens. When preparing himself to process chickens on his farm of nearly 200, he assured us that the most difficult part of the process for him is making selections the night before dispatch. He isn’t just choosing the fattest, most foghorn-leghorn-looking of the bunch. He’s “cultivating a genome,” electing traits for the long-term, deciding the path of his farm and the relationships these chickens will have with each other for years to come. They are choices of legacy, lifestyle, and sustainability. While he spoke, I was holding one of our laying hens, an Ameraucana, her plumage beautifully speckled to blend in with compost piles and high grass. Her blue eggs are the delight of our breakfast table, whenever she decides to grace us with them. She will live out the rest of her laying days under the protection of our magnificent, butt-liced, raptor-taloned rooster, Dwayne. Holding her, I wondered if she could smell that iron reek of damp feather still lingering on my clothes.

It took 5 hours and half a pound of butter, but I did roast a bird. It’s nearly as intimate as dispatch, slathering herbed butter and garlic scapes under freshly brined skin. Where once this chicken housed so many shades of red and a Temple of Doom heart, I stuffed salted lemons and onions. I don’t know enough about psychology to explain why there was such disconnect between pulling the chicken out of the oven and pulling the chicken out of the killing cone, but I can say that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The smell of damp feathers and gut buckets won’t leave me any time soon, but neither will the scent of rosemary and thyme after cracking open the oven. After it had cooled, one of our cohort ambled in and marveled at the chicken’s final form. She’s a vegetarian, but together we butchered the bird, separating meats and bones to save for stock. When all that was left was a carcass, she paused, fingers covered in grease and flesh. “Should I...can I try it?” Together, we pulled bits of meat off what was left and ate, tearing and prying open and licking fingers. Acts so primal for a process so clinical. When we reached the furcula, we both forgot ourselves and grinned. What better way to honor our chicken than do as the Romans did and break the wishbone? We grasped each end, closed our eyes, spoke our gratitude and what we hope to cultivate out loud, and pulled.

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